The art of the pitch

by Ruth Laugesen / 29 January, 2013
In today’s world we’re all flogging something as the internet rewrites the sales manual.
The art of the pitch
photo Getty Images/Listener photo illustration

The mission: buy a pot of orchids for a bereaved relative on the other side of the world. The choice seems clear. A big online flower firm tops the Google search. But how to be sure the flowers will be all that is promised?

With a quick check – by typing the firm’s name alongside “scam” – the bad news tumbles out. Angry customers complain of poor service, misleading sales practices and extra charges on their credit cards. And then there are the federal actions for fraud and deceptive advertising. We perform the same checks on the next flower firm in the listings and it comes up roses. Mission completed.

The power unhappy flower buyers and others have gained to share their experiences with a potentially vast audience is one reason the nature of selling is undergoing a transformation, argues best-selling author Daniel Pink in his new book, To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth about Persuading, Convincing and Influencing Others. The archetypal salesperson, slick and fast-talking, is becoming an endangered species in a new environment of better-informed buyers. Instead, sales success increasingly depends on being attuned to consumers and being more trustworthy. And Pink, also author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, maintains that with flatter organisations, the rise of micro-entrepreneurs and a turbulent work world, all of us are increasingly in the business of sales and persuasion in one way or another, whether we realise it or not. Doctors selling patients on remedies, lawyers bringing juries around to a verdict, coaches revving-up players and parents cajoling recalcitrant kids – all are in the sales game.

And although it used to be that a customer buying a phone was reliant on a salesperson in a shop for most of the information about the product, now consumers can look at scathing or glowing online reviews before visiting a retailer to handle the product. A snow job from a salesperson is unlikely to work.

“We don’t think very highly of salespeople,” says Pink, speaking on the phone from Washington DC. “But my view is that particular attitude about sales, this idea that it’s slippery, low-brow and underhanded, tells us more about the conditions in which sales have long taken place, rather than the nature of sales itself.

“When sellers have more information than buyers, sellers can hoodwink you, they can rip you off. But now the information asymmetry that defined much of the sales relationship is changing. It has supplanted this world of caveat emptor, which is buyer beware, to a world today of caveat venditor, which is seller beware.”


This new world is forcing an approach to sales that is “more fundamentally human”, says Pink. It includes taking other people’s points of view, conveying ideas succinctly, “and ultimately serving others”. Pink himself seems a pretty good salesman. Not only is he an engaging speaker, but he offers special online deals on pre-orders of his new book and is fiendishly active in promoting himself through Twitter. Honesty and humility are key. On his website’s homepage, he scores himself for 10 predictions he made for 2012. Overall, he bombed. Five were wrong, including three that were “dead wrong”, three were “not bad”, one was “pretty good” and only one scored the top mark of “nailed it”. Proceeding with humility, Pink writes, is one of the wisest and most ethical ways of moving people.

In the United States about one in nine people is in sales, a figure that has remained unchanged in the past decade despite the tech revolution. New Zealand statistics don’t break down how many jobs are in sales. However, of 13,000 jobs recently listed online by Seek, one in five was in sales. Many more people have sales as an element of their jobs, as business hierarchies become flatter and employees more versatile.

Daniel Pink
Daniel Pink

And we are engaged in selling in its broadest sense whenever we attempt to persuade, convince or influence others. That could be a colleague, a customer, a potential employer or your children. Sitting down with his diary one day and looking at two weeks of meetings, teleconferences and emails, Pink categorised how his days had been divided up. He found most of his time had been spent trying to persuade – whether pitching ideas, convincing a prospective business partner to join forces or urging an organisation where he volunteered to shift strategies.

In a survey Pink commissioned of 9000 respondents, he found people spend about 40% of their time – 24 minutes in every hour – engaged in non-sales selling by persuading, influencing and convincing others in ways that don’t involve a purchase. People said they considered this work crucial to their professional success, even more important than the amount of time they were allocating to it.

Selling ourselves has assumed greater priority, too, in the wake of the global financial crisis, and with the speed at which technology is disrupting many industries. “There is a great amount of jitteriness in the United States today. Part of it is cyclical – we’ve just had this massive recession – but part of it is secular, and among the secular trends that give people a sense of jitteriness is the idea that they’re much more responsible for navigating their own work and their own careers, with much more risk on their shoulders. It’s a factor in people being more and more responsible for selling in all its dimensions.”


At some organisations, selling has become everyone’s responsibility. One such outfit is Australian software firm Atlassian, whose customers include Microsoft, Air New Zealand and the United Nations. Despite revenue of $100 million last year, Atlassian has no salespeople. Instead, all staff who are working with customers are effectively salespeople, by being expected to meet customer needs, having to understand how the company’s product will be used and being required to build something that works well for customers. “You talk to the people running that place and they give you this zen-like answer, which is nobody is in sales because everybody is in sales.”

Although the old mantra of sales was ABC – Always Be Closing – Pink maintains that today persuading, convincing and influencing people demands attunement, buoyancy and clarity. Attunement is about tuning into another person’s view of the world, so you can better respond to what he or she is seeking. This isn’t the same as empathy, says Pink, which is an emotional understanding of someone else. Instead what is required is a cognitive skill, getting inside someone’s brain to understand what he or she is thinking, also known as perspective-taking.

“The beginning of persuasion is to really see things from their perspective. This is hugely important in any kind of negotiation situation.”

One technique that seems to promote attunement is physical mimicry. “There’s a lot of evidence that subtly mimicking someone’s mannerisms and positions and physical actions, which is something that human beings do naturally, can actually enhance your powers of perspective-taking. It isn’t like you’re trying to hoodwink somebody – human beings are natural mimics. In some experiments with negotiators, people who are given even scant instructions to mimic the other side’s mannerisms ended up reaching agreement in negotiations that were better for both sides.”

A Dutch study found that waitresses who read back diners’ orders verbatim earned 70% more tips than those who paraphrased orders. The diners were also more satisfied with their dining experience.

New-model business: at Atlassian, everyone sells but there are no salespeople.

A lack of attunement is the key to one of the most surprising findings in Pink’s book: that extroverts are lousy salespeople. “We think the people who are good at sales are the super-smiley, fast-talking, back-slapping, sunny, loud personalities. But if you actually look at the evidence, the correlation between extroversion and sales performance, which is how many times you make the cash register ring, is almost zero.”

A study by Adam Grant, a management professor at the University of Pennsylvania, got more than 300 sales representatives at call centres to complete personality assessments. He then looked at their sales records. It turned out that introverts and extroverts have about the same sales success, with introverts earning an average of $120 an hour in revenue, and extroverts earning about $125 an hour. But both were outstripped by ambiverts, who are somewhere between extroversion and introversion. They earned $155 an hour. And those precisely halfway between extroversion and introversion earned much more again – $208 an hour.

The reason extroverts perform poorly, says Pink, is they talk too much, overwhelm the person they’re talking to and don’t listen. The good news is that most of us are in the middle, thus well-equipped for selling. Ambiverts “know when to speak up, they know when to shut up, they know when to push, they know when to hold back”. The extroverts among us need to get better at listening by making fewer declarations and asking more questions. And those of us who are introverted need to make more of an effort to speak up and state our point of view, even if it is uncomfortable.


Perhaps the most valuable trait to cultivate in the new ABC is buoyancy, the ability to bounce back after rejection. Tiggerish buoyancy is often seen as a personality trait. But it can be learnt, says Pink, even for those who are Eeyoreish in nature. Before an important sales pitch or asking your boss for a pay rise, the gurus of positive thinking would suggest it helps to pump yourself up with “I can do it”-type messages. Wrong, says Pink. Far more powerful is what is called interrogative self-talk. Instead of telling yourself “I can do it”, better to ask yourself, “can I do it?”

“What happens is I begin trying to answer the question can I do this? ‘Yes, I can do this, because I’m prepared and really believe in the idea that I’m pitching.’ And so interrogative self-talk allows people to summon their strategies and tactics for doing the job rather than just feel good about it. It’s a much more muscular kind of self-talk.”

Americans are famously positive but would the technique work for a modest New Zealander? A downbeat New Zealander runs the risk of asking “can I do it” and concluding that maybe he or she can’t. Pink thinks running through the exercise could still be helpful preparation. “Because if you say I’ve got a meeting tomorrow, can I do this, and you say, ‘Well, no, I can’t do this because I’m not adequately prepared. I haven’t done the research on the people I’m pitching to.’ Maybe that’s actually a good thing, because then you can say, ‘Let’s postpone the meeting for a week so I can get ready.’”

For the pitch itself, or when you are trying to persuade someone, positive emotions work much better than negative emotions. They tend to broaden options and thinking. And for maintaining buoyancy after rejection, Pink points to the importance of the work of Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania, who is a pioneer in positive psychology and happiness research.

Seligman found that how people explain negative events to themselves is crucial in how they see the future. People who give up easily, who despair even in situations where they have some power to act, tend to explain bad events as permanent, pervasive and personal. A negative event can quickly suck away their confidence, pulling them into a vortex of catastrophising thoughts.

So if they are yelled at by their boss, they might think “he yelled at me because I’m incompetent”, or “all bosses are mean”, rather than “the boss is having a bad day and I was in the line of fire”.

“It turns out – and it’s not that surprising – if your explanatory style when you get rejected is ‘it’s all my fault, it always happens and it’s going to ruin everything’, that doesn’t create a lot of buoyancy. What’s better is to authentically, analytically look at a situation and try to find ways that it isn’t entirely personal, it isn’t pervasive, no, this doesn’t always happen and it isn’t permanent. That it’s not going to ruin your life,” says Pink.


The third quality needed to move others is clarity. It is no longer good enough for a salesperson to be a good problem-solver. After all, often the internet allows customers to find solutions for themselves. Instead, the ability to move others hinges more on problem finding. Pink cites a top multinational confectionery company, Perfetti Van Melle. Its salespeople have shifted from simply helping retailers decide how many rolls of Mentos to order, to brainstorming with shopkeepers on maximising sales – even if it means recommending some of a competitor’s products in the mix. Thus the firm’s best salespeople think of their job not as selling candy, but as selling insights into the confectionery business.

In one sense, says Pink, we are seeing the death of a salesman, or at least the slick salesmanship that was once the very essence of selling. But he argues we are also seeing a rebirth of the need for selling, but of a different nature.

“The need for selling in general has not changed at all. indeed, I would argue that it’s become different but also more urgent. What it means is that all of us as individuals in our companies, in our non-profit organisations, even in our day-to-day family lives, have to master a certain set of qualities and a certain roster of abilities in order to make our way.”

Pitch perfect

From Obama to Pixar, everyone's in the selling game.

In the recent US presidential election campaign, Barack Obama at one point derided opponent Mitt Romney as “a salesman”. “It was the ultimate insult,” says Daniel Pink. “It was actually Obama, I think, who was the much, much better salesman.”

Obama employed a classic one-word pitch at the heart of his campaign, the word “forward”. “He was able to distil his message to one word. Everywhere he went, on posters and placards and events, that word was there.” In contrast, Romney was unable to convey as clear a message.

At one point in the campaign, Romney used another classic technique, the question pitch. It had worked in 1980 for Ronald Reagan, who turned it on Jimmy Carter during an economic downturn, asking, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” The answer, a resounding “no”, helped deliver the election to Reagan. But when Romney used the same line this election, Pink says the answer was mixed. Some were better off, some were worse off.

Barack Obama
A classic one-word pitch – “forward” – helped Barack Obama get re-elected, photo/Getty images

“The general lesson is, if the facts are on your side, pitch with questions; if the facts aren’t fully on your side, pitch with a general statement. Romney tried to roll that out about six weeks before election day and it completely fizzled. It ended up backfiring, in a way.”

A third pitch is the rhyming pitch – hokey but surprisingly effective. It’s one Pink uses, and it was famously deployed by OJ Simpson’s lawyer at his 1995 murder trial when the jury were reminded that a bloodstained glove found at the scene didn’t fit the accused. “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit,” went the closing statement to the jury. They acquitted.

“There’s evidence showing pitches that rhyme not only are more memorable, but are also considered more truthful. Because they increase what’s called processing fluency,” says Pink.

The subject-line pitch is about using the email subject line to get people to read your emails. Research has found that people are more likely to read emails when they think they will be useful and when they are curious about the contents of the email.

And the Twitter pitch is when you can sum up your message in 140 or fewer characters. On Twitter itself, the most popular messages have been found to be ones that ask questions of followers or that provide fresh information and links.

Another, the Pixar pitch, is based on the storyline of every movie produced by Pixar Animation Studios, which goes: “Once upon a time … Every day, … One day … Because of that, … Because of that, … Until finally …”

Pink gives the example of how a charity might use the Pixar pitch to sign up funders for a home HIV test: “Once upon a time there was a health crisis haunting many parts of Africa. Every day, thousands of people would die of Aids and HIV-related illness, often because they didn’t know they carried the virus.

One day we developed an inexpensive home HIV kit that allowed people to test themselves with a simple saliva swab. Because of that, more people got tested. Because of that, those with the infection sought treatment and took measures to avoid infecting others. Until finally this menacing disease slowed its spread and more people lived longer lives.”

The pitch can be adapted to fit the storyline of the organisation or idea you are trying to sell. Or perhaps even to pitch a story idea to Pixar.

Selling her soles

Facebook helps a maker of customised clothing and shoes reach her market.

As a budding entrepreneur, Miriama Grace-Smith is not only a designer, manager, craftsperson and receptionist all rolled into one, but is also a salesperson and marketer. Like legions of small traders, from those earning a part-time income on Trade Me to others selling crafts through international websites, Grace-Smith has learnt through trial and error how to sell.

The first orders for her customised painted vintage clothing and shoes came from friends and then by word of mouth from their friends. Over the past six months, she has found the best vehicle to reach a wider base is through a Facebook page for her business, Foresight Customised Clothing.

“Facebook is a great way to communicate with people,” says Grace-Smith. Not only can she showcase goods and field enquiries, but she can also test ideas. “You can put up a picture of something before you buy a whole lot of stock, to say, ‘Hey, do you guys like this?’, and see what their feedback is,” says Grace-Smith. She recently decided to make a more direct connection with customers by adding biographical details and a photo of herself to the Facebook page. “I find I’m more interested in artists’ pages when I find out who creates the work.”

At Richard Wyles’s rapidly growing Wellington software business, Totara, there isn’t any salesmanship of the old-fashioned “have I got a deal for you” variety. Instead, selling is not a separate role, but is tied up in close customer relationships and good service.

Miriama Grace-Smith
Gone online: Miriama Grace-Smith puts Trade Me and Facebook to work to help sell her wares.

Totara’s open-source software is downloadable for free from the web, giving corporate customers around the world a customisable learning system to train their staff. The company’s income comes from subscription service fees and from adapting the software to the needs of particular customers, as well as from partners who onsell subscription services overseas.

Sales is less about selling than about building relationships and developing a good understanding of client needs. “We very much go for a collaborative model. Once people buy into that process, they’re much more likely to get what they’re wanting,” says Wyles, who is chief executive. The firm’s turnover is expected to double this year to $4 million. When new features are launched, Totara doesn’t blitz users with hype, but enlists input to make the product better. “That first wave of feedback is really rich,” says Wyles.

At first glance, a top university teacher has little in common with either Wyles or Grace-Smith. But like them, University of Otago senior pharmacy lecturer Rhiannon Braund is in the business of persuading and influencing people, in her case to help students learn. Braund was awarded the 2012 Prime Minister’s supreme award for tertiary teaching excellence. She sees many parallels between being a successful teacher and a successful salesperson, chief among them the ability to connect.

“Part of my job as an educator is about finding the motivator for my students. The way I approach it is to have different styles and different illustrations and examples to make sure everyone has some kind of hook, something that resonates with them. If you want them to listen, you need to talk their language. Some people like facts and figures, some people like the touchy-feely stuff, a story that goes along with it.”

Do you have to be an extrovert to communicate well? “No. I’m a terrible introvert. It’s about the rapport you have with the people you teach. You’ve got to be receptive to feedback. I’m very receptive even to non-verbal cues. If the students look at me like, ‘What did you just say?’, then I go back over the material.”

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